Plastic yogurt bottle being recycled

What Determines If Something Can Be Recycled?

When you’re sorting through your recyclables, you probably already have a system. You sort by material, right? Plastic goes with plastic, paper goes with paper, etc. In reality, what makes something recyclable is much more complicated than that.
Luckily there are resources to help you figure out what can and can’t be recycled. Check out our recycling guidelines or go to your local recycling company’s website for more information.
We wish that every item could easily be sorted into categories and repurposed but this process is only realistic for items that meet certain criteria. This system is called “The 4 S’s”. Items can usually be recycled if they meet these criteria. Sortable, supply, safe, sellable.

Sortable

Many recycling companies offer a one bin system since this creates the least amount of work for the recycler and therefore encourages recyclers to utilize their service. However, the process of unmixing these items once they arrive at the recycling facility can be complicated. These sorting facilities are called “MRFs” or Material Recovery Facilities. People and machines work together to sort through recyclables.
A typical MRF has lots of conveyor belts to move and sort recyclables. Paper, cardboard, and glass are usually sorted by hand since glass is delicate and paper a

Four recycling bins for different types of recyclables

nd cardboard are flimsy. Metals are sorted with magnets and plastics are either sorted by hand or with lasers that identify different kinds of resin. There are usually still humans manned at these automated sorting stations to ensure that common contaminants don’t make it through.
Some common contaminants to avoid putting in your recycling bin are; plastic film, chip bags, blister packaging, food contaminated recyclables (pizza boxes, paper plates, etc.), bottle caps, plastic utensils, zip ties, cords or wires, sports equipment, and clothing.

Supply

Keep in mind that while machines are a great help to recycling facilities and the entire process of recycling, they are not perfect. MRF machines were created to sort specific items. When you try to recycle an uncommon item, like a plastic toy, it can end up causing more harm than good.
Recycling companies resell their recycled materials to wholesale buyers. These connections and relationships are created when a center has a steady supply of a certain type of recyclable. When a unique kind of material is recycled, the center may not have these connections made and the item may end up being thrown away altogether.

Safe

Glass bottles in a canvas tote

Many people and places will be involved with the recycling of your items after it goes into the recycling bin. This is why certain items need to be treated differently. Potentially hazardous items that need special treatment are batteries, aerosol, cans, lightbulbs, broken glass, and lav or medical containers. These items must be disposed of properly for the safety of those who have to dispose of them.

Sellable

Sometimes certain items are not recyclable simply because the material has little value. If an MRF cannot sell the recyclables, it is not worth it to sort them. Common items that fall into this category are blister packaging and chip bags. These items are best to use the other R’s (refuse, reduce, or reuse). If you cannot avoid buying these products, or you cannot reuse them throwing them in the trash is the best option.

Doing your part to recycle correctly allows recycling services to do their jobs better and continue servicing your community. Remember to support your recycling service by not only utilizing their services but also by purchasing products that are made from recyclable materials. This raises the value that their recyclables are held at, making their service more profitable!